In both of the talks that I’ve attended recently by writer, R.J. Ellory, I was fascinated to hear the way he describes three categories of novels. I realised that even if I hadn’t classified them so clearly before this, I recognised that this is actually how I view them too:
1: the ‘airport ones’ that you might take on holiday with you, or curl up at home with on a cold wet day. These are escapist entertainment, often following an established formula. They are quickly devoured, enjoyed, and as quickly forgotten. They do ‘what it says on the tin’ and serve a specific purpose. They are ‘give-away’ items that you can pass on to friends or charity shops without a qualm.
2: literary fiction, which is often described as ‘style over content’. These books might sometimes need a bit more thought and effort while you read them, but they will make a long-term impact on the reader, and will often be re-read quite soon, not because their plot has already been forgotten, but in order to savour the beautiful phrases and sentences and admire the sheer skill in the use of the English language. Each subsequent reading is likely to reveal more treasures.
3: a combination of 1 and 2 – beautiful and skilful use of language, but more commercial, with, perhaps, a more immediately accessible and gripping plot. R.J. Ellory aims at being in this category, and it is certainly where I’d have placed his novel, A Quiet Belief in Angels. (the only one I’ve read so far)
I was reminded again of these categories a couple of days ago, when I came across the link to this article on the on-line BookSeller: >“Chick lit offers fully rounded heroines for fully rounded women”. Apparently, >“the latest publishing phenomenon to sweep America, which has just arrived over here, features a new heroine: the young woman who is seriously overweight – and doesn’t care.”
I don’t tend to read Chic Lit myself, but I don’t think that has anything to do with the dress-size of its protagonists. It’s the formulaic plots that don’t hold much interest for me. (Having said that, I used to adore Georgette Heyer’s predictable Regency romances in my younger days, and their heroines were always beautiful, and they always won the dark, sardonic hero in the end.)
Nowadays, I prefer to feel that I’m learning something new from a novel, whichever category it might fall into. I’m currently nearing the end of a very enjoyable novel (on CD) Amenable Women, by Mavis Cheek. One of her themes is the importance (or not) of beauty for a woman, particularly how plain women are perceived in our culture now, and in Tudor times.
I was particularly interested that Mavis Cheek had chosen this as a key theme in her novel, because it also plays a part in my new novel, Paper Lanterns.
There seem to be a few themes in this particular post: categories/genres of novels; possibilities of lots of sub-divisions in each of the three I’ve named – and a whole lot more to say about what people are looking for when they pick up a novel.